Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Minicomics Round-Up: Kelly/Antal, Kowalczuk, Callahan, Tripodi

Scrambled Circuits 1-4, by Cameron Callahan. These are interesting comics in that they represent a creative ground zero for a new cartoonist. Callahan simply started making comics one day to express himself, and while the results are understandably raw, there's definitely something compelling about them. These comics are clearly autobiographical, but Callahan features robot, lizard and monster stand-ins for all of his characters. His own stand-in is Primus, a robot who wears a Ninja Turtle-style mask, while his parents are giant lizards. It's a gimmicky choice that works, because Callahan can draw simple and expressive monsters in a way that he's not quite able to do while drawing people. It also adds a layer of fantasy to his real-life strips, allowing him perhaps to say and draw things that would be more uncomfortable if he was actually drawing those close to him. It's more than a gimmick, though, because one also gets the sense that Callahan feels confused and alienated by the world and his circumstances, and the drawings get across this feeling without being too obvious about it.

The results can be seen in the actual stories. The first issue features anecdotes from working in a bookstore and then later moving to the desert to take care of his dying grandfather, a move that put him in maddening isolation. The second issue contains essays about how we develop personalities, how to deal with bullies and the inception of creativity. The third goes back to more quotidian information, as he moves in with his father, starts art school, starts going out with a girl (in a series of very sweet strips) and gives dating advice to his best friend. The fourth issue sees Callahan going to a bigger format and using other artists to draw his stories. While it's a different look to be sure (and I thought Dylan Canfield's story was perhaps the most effective in the book), I didn't find it more effective than Callahan's own line. Callahan's own chops as a writer have certainly improved from issue to issue. Instead of slightly rambling anecdotes, he's begun to add more structure and more obvious story rhythms to give these stories more punch. That's certainly true in the story about going to a video store with his dad as a teen and being denied a chance to watch anime, as well as a hilarious story about two mothers seeing Callahan and his friends play and discuss esoterica regarding a fantasy card game. The final story, where he shows his mom and his step-dad some of his comics and they read them on the spot, had some remarkable emotional resonance. Callahan is clearly a young artist dedicated to the form, getting better in public and grappling with emotional truths from a number of different angles.

Vreckless Vrestlers #1, by Lukasz Kowalczuk. This is a gleeful bit of nonsense from Polish cartoonist Kowalczuk. It combines the cartoonish and melodramatic glee of professional wrestling with the visceral, nihilistic violence of Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit series. They're also a form of cartooning problem-solving, as Kowalczuk tries to make each bout different while finding ways to highlight each of the combatant's abilities in an interesting and clear manner while finishing each one in a satisfying manner. In this issue, The Eye battles the Crimean Crab in a splattering bloodfest that incorporates ringwork, chopped-off hands replaced with sharp implements and a grotesque final-panel reveal. It also features a character named Vegan Cat overcoming the noxious fumes of the Flatwood Monster and shredding it to bit. The reveal here is also pretty nifty, though it comes earlier in the story, robbing it of some of the power the first story possessed. Kowalczuk delights in using a chunky line and over-the-top character dynamics and revels in the sort of American pop culture melange he's created here by combining monsters, pro wrestling and gladiatorial combat.

Black Sheep and Melee, by Diego Tripodi. Tripodi is an Argentinian cartoonist heavily influenced by the likes of Frank Miller and Will Eisner. Mood, shadow and density are the hallmarks of his pages. In Black Sheep, he's also very much influenced by director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune (even naming the locale after the latter) in this story of a man who sacrificed being a samurai to spare a friend and raise his own family. The story opens as the samurai have finally tracked him down and he and his family have to deal with their fate. It's formulaic if well-executed, with all sorts of zip-a-tone, dense and shadowy hatching, ink smudges, extensive use of silhouettes, cinematic transitions and other tricks adding visual excitement to each page There's also an interesting climax with a couple of clever twists.

Melee is an anthology of his short stories and collaborations. The most intriguing one is "Slower Burning", a collaboration with his publisher Jeremy Baum. It's about two young vampires and a painting that captures their image, with one desperate to break out of her circumstances. The use of color is especially effective. "Toy Box Queen" is a sweeter story dominated by brighter colors but also highly influenced by Miller's character design style. It's about a toy soldier and a female doll and their efforts to be together. "Smoke Signal" is a more surreal tale dominated by red and black about the woman in the moon. Once again, it's heavy on Eisner-style noir atmosphere. "Avalanche", about aliens rescuing a man and a dog in the snow, references a lot of European comics, with a touch of Moebius in there for sure. Tripodi seems to be cycling through his influences rapidly, and he would be an ideal illustrator for a long-form fantasy comic.

Tales of the Night Watchman: Staycation and It Came From the Gowanus Canal, by Dave Kelly, Lara Antal & Molly Ostertag. The Kelly-written and Antal-drawn Night Watchman "franchise" is marked by its superhero and supernatural tropes, but it's really a good old-fashioned slice-of-life comic, the kind that used to be far more common twenty years ago. Staycation eschews all of the supernatural aspects of the series and focuses instead on Nora and a friend going on a beach adventure. This is a slight little tale about personal reflection, friendship, loneliness, escape and betrayal. It acts as a prologue for the larger series, and it's interesting that Kelly and Antal have chosen to write so many interstitial stories surrounding the larger stories. It's clear that they want to flesh out the characters as much as possible as well as get to tell stories outside of what is clearly a tighter story arc in the main comic.

It Came From The Gowanus Canal is more of a "monster of the week" story that contains elements of noir and horror along with developing its characters. It's a clever twist on the old mobster movie trope of "cement overshoes", as those murdered by the mob and dumped in the river come to life as the "Gowanus Golem", killing the children of the vicious mobster and his cronies who killed them. It deepens the relationship between the Night Watchman's alter ego (Charlie) and Serena, the young punk who's working in the coffee shop that Nora manages. It adds a level of complication to the relationship between Nora and Charlie, the former of whom wants to be involved in his adventures and the latter who wants to keep her safe and away from danger. It also adds tantalizing clues as to his past and his missing memory. The art from Molly Ostertag is solid, though the action sequences are stiff. The comic also fairly cried for color, as the use of shading was on the dull side. Overall, this is a nice hybrid of the quotidian and the creepy with modest aims.

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